Degas’s painting In a café (The absinthe drinker) shows a couple seated side by side in a café, looking worse for wear after a long night. The woman stares into space with heavy eyes, her shoulders drooped and a pale drink (absinthe) on the table in front of her. Her surly companion stares off to the side, a pipe sticking from his mouth, his misshapen hat pulled down over his unruly hair. His glass is filled with a brown drink (possibly mazagran – a cold coffee beverage and hangover cure). The palette of muted greys and soft earth tones suggests stale air and melancholy.
This scene was both typical and topical in Degas’s time. Absinthe (also known as La Fée Verte or ‘the green fairy’) was a green coloured, highly alcoholic spirit. Poured over ice and served with water and a cube of sugar to soften the bitter taste, it was highly addictive and known to cause hallucinations. Its growing popularity and its negative social effects led to absinthe being banned in much of Europe and America.
The café pictured –La Nouvelle Athènes, in Place Pigalle – was one frequented by modern artists and intellectual bohemians. The painting is composed like a photograph, with its subject matter cropped at the edges and carefully balanced light and shade. Although it has the appearance of being made on the spot, the image was actually completed in Degas’s studio. Degas convinced his friends to models for the figures: Ellen André was an actress and an artist’s model; Marcellin Desboutin was an engraver and artist. Their reputations suffered as a result of the painting and Degas had to publicly declare that they were not really alcoholics.
Write your own description of the painting from the viewpoint of a historian. What does it show of Degas’s time?
Liven up the party: Degas uses colours and composition that create a sense of melancholy. Use your own colour palette to repaint or redraw the picture. Liven up the party with a more festive mood!
Strike a pose: Use your friends to model a social scene. Think about the setting, lighting, clothing and posture. What mood do they create? What story might they tell? Take a photo or create a painting or drawing of your scene. Think about cropping and framing to create interest.
Quit: Degas shows us the ‘underbelly’ of French society at the time. Many people were concerned about the dangers of addiction to absinthe. Brainstorm things that we know cause damage to our health and wellbeing today.
Make a campaign advertisement or pamphlet to highlight an issue and educate people to change their behaviour.
Investigative reporter: Work like an investigative journalist and prepare an ‘on the spot’ video report about the dangers of absinthe in nineteenth century France.
Say it in song: Degas paints a mood with colour in his café scene. Paint a mood with sound: make a soundtrack or song inspired by the scene.
Novel approach: Degas’s scene is a glimpse of a single moment that is part of a bigger ‘story’. Write an excerpt from that story, thinking of character, plot and mood.
Hats off to you: Ellen and Marcellin might look happier if they had new hats. Design and make each of them some beautiful headgear.
Human degradation and sordid unloveliness – examining issues, opinions and arguments
Discussing and debating art: Analysing resources and commentaries to examine and debate opinions and arguments.
Victorian Curriculum Visual Arts:
Respond and interpret: Analysing, evaluating interpreting and reflecting upon meanings, beliefs and values in artworks. Examining artworks in historical and cultural contexts.
Degas’s In a café (The absinthe drinker) received mixed reactions when it was exhibited. Some reviewers called the subject matter ‘repulsive’. Others said that it was a valuable sociological study. A selection of the reviews can be read below.
Anon [J. S. Spender], Westminster Gazette 17 February 1893
…the two works of Degas exhibited in this gallery bring so forcibly before us the artistic ideals of the ‘new painters’ that we really cannot forbear. One is called ‘Absinthe’… A man and a woman, both of the most degraded type, are seated on a bench in a wine-shop, their backs reflected in a glass screen behind them … the total effect … is one which most of us will be anxious to banish from our minds as quickly as possible, and neither of them tells us anything about M. Degas’ skill which we did not know about before.
D.S.M.[D.S. MacColl], Spectator 25 February 1893
L’Absinthe, by Degas, is the inexhaustible picture, the one that draws you back, and back again. It set a standard by which too many of the would-be ‘decorative’ inventions in the exhibition are cruelly judged. It is what they call ‘a repulsive subject’, two rather sodden people drinking in a café… so does this master of character, of form, of colour, watch till the café table-tops and the mirror and the water-bottle and the drinks and the features yield up to him their mysterious affecting note. The subject, if you like, was repulsive as you would have seen it, before Degas made it his. If it appears so still, you may make up your mind that the confusion and affliction from which you suffer are incurable.
Walter Crane, Westminster Gazette 20 March, 1893
Here is a study of human degradation, male and female, presented with extraordinary insight and graphic skill, with all the devotion to the realisation (or idealisation) of squalid and sordid unloveliness, and the outward and visible signs of the corruption of society which are characteristic of the most modern painting. Such a study would not be without its value in a sociological museum, or even as an illustrated tract in the temperance propaganda; but when we are asked to believe that this is a new revelation of beauty – that this is the Adam and Eve of a new world of aesthetic pleasure, degraded and not ashamed, a paradise of un natural selection – it is another matter.
The best answer is, perhaps, another question – How could one live with such a work? That is a test which never fails.
Discuss and Write:
Which of the reviews above are positive? Which ones are negative? Which phrases indicate this? How are the views justified?
Write your own review of the work.
Of Your Time
Degas’s friend Manet said ‘Il faut etre de son temps’ ( it is necessary to be true to one’s own time). Degas faithfully shows an aspect of his era.
Do you agree that an artist should reflect their time? What is the role of the artist in society? What responsibility does this role carry?
What do you think?
Artists often ignite heated debate with their work, especially when it touches upon closely held social values and beliefs. Artists such as Bill Henson (Australian, b.1955), Mike Parr (Australian, b.1945) and Andres Serrano (American, b.1950) have all been at the centre of controversy caused by their art.
Choose one of these artists or research your own. Describe the controversy that surrounded their work. What were the values or beliefs that were at the heart of the controversy? Find some different opinions about the works…and think about your own view.
Present a debate about the work that explores possible viewpoints about the work.
Although the café La Nouvelle Athènes is no longer there…you can still find Place Pigalle on a map of Paris with Google Maps and reviews on TripAdvisor as seen in the links below.
Write a review of La Nouvelle Athènes: the venue, location, entertainment, food and service in the style of a TripAdvisor review.